Wolfgang Van Halen on his approach as a multi-instrumentalist: "Drums are, to me, the most important part. It's the backbone of everything"

Wolfgang Van Halen sat at drum kit
(Image credit: Mammoth WVH/YouTube)

Wolfgang Van Halen’s career to-date has been far from ordinary. Famously born into one of the most influential families in rock, Wolfgang’s first proper gig came at just 15 years-old, undertaking the small task of filling Michael Anthony’s role as bassist in Van Halen. Following his stint in the family business, Wolfgang went on to play with Alter Bridge/Creed guitarist Mark Tremonti’s solo project, Tremonti, as well as putting in time on drums with Sevendust’s Clint Lowery.

Fast-forward to 2021, though, and Wolfgang unveiled his Mammoth WVH project. With a debut album that bridged the gap between the flare and polish of classic rock and the raw grit of modern, heavier styles, Wolfgang’s music makes the perfect statement for the detractors who would like to think they know how his music should sound, and aren’t shy in letting him know.

It should come as no surprise that the son of the electric guitar’s greatest pioneer since Jimi Hendrix would choose music as his career path. But what might be surprising to more casual listeners, is that while Mammoth WVH live shows feature a band (guitarists Frank Sidoris and Jon Jourdan, bassist Ronnie Ficcaro and drummer Garrett Whitlock), Wolfgang writes and records every single note from every instrument you hear on Mammoth's songs. 

With second album, Mammoth II freshly released into the wild, we caught up with Wolfgang to find out about his approach as a multi-instrumentalist, growing up with his surname, and why his performances at the 2022 Taylor Hawkins Tribute concerts was as much a tribute to his late father.

You grew up in a family with two indescribably influential musicians as role models. Which instrument came to you first, guitar or drums?

"I started playing drums when I was nine-ish. It was the only thing my dad actually sat down to teach me. He sat me down at a table with a couple of magazines. And he had me play eighth notes with my right hand, or quarter notes, I guess. 

"Then with my left hand on the two and the four, and then he's like, if you can do your foot on the one and the three and do that all together at the same time, you're playing Highway to Hell. So once he saw that I could do it. He was like 'Yes!'. 

"He bought me a Roland V-Drums kit immediately. Later, on my 10th birthday he bought me an Everplay drum kit, like an actual acoustic drum kit. So that was the first thing and then basically from there, I just taught myself. 

"I listened to Van Halen, Best Of: Volume One and Enema of the State by Blink-182. I listened to those two albums back and forth, trying to replicate everything I heard. I also had the benefit of being able to watch Al during rehearsals. So it was very, very fun to just see how an amazing drummer plays, up-close."

So you never sat down with Alex for drum lessons?

"No, not even a little bit. Other than that moment of Dad sitting me down, there was never a moment where either Al or Dad sat down like, 'I'm gonna teach you how to do this.’ I wouldn't have had it any other way. I like how I was able to teach myself from looking at guitar tabs on the internet and just trying to replicate every one of my favourite songs."

Who were the drummers that you gravitated towards?

"I mean, still to this day, obviously Al. Just in terms of my family, you know, both Dad and Al, I hold them in a different place. Because they're like a part of me. It nearly goes without mentioning. 

"But when it comes to drummers, Travis Barker is still a very huge inspiration, I was really lucky to actually be able to speak to him during the Los Angeles Taylor Hawkins show. I got to tell him that story, and how Enema of the State meant everything to me growing up. He was super kind, a really, really nice guy." 

He wrote and recorded the parts for Enema…really quickly, too

"That doesn’t surprise me. He elevated them to such an amazing degree, like, the comparison of drumming, from Dude Ranch to Enema of The State is crazy. Nothing against the previous drummer [Scott Raynor], he was just more of a standard sort of punk-beat drummer. 

"But Travis elevated them to such an insane degree. I think it's a big reason why that blew up. Also, just being a single-pedal drummer is already such an inspiring thing to me because I'm more of a double-kick guy, but the stuff that he's able to pull off with just a single kick is so badass.

"But other than that, I noticed a really steep sort of jump in my drum skills when I started playing along with Tool. When I discovered Danny Carey, that was a really, really big jump. 

"It was a really difficult thing for me to do. But once I started to get comfortable with all that kind of stuff, I noticed a big change in my abilities as a drummer. So Danny Carey was definitely a huge, huge inspiration."

Do you have a favourite Tool song to play on drums?

"To play - one of my favourite drum moments is the drum breakdown in Forty Six & 2 off Ænima. I love that part. From Lateralus it's tough to beat Ticks & Leeches or The Grudge for me."

Many great rhythm guitar players also know their way around a drum kit, do you think there’s a connection there?

“Yeah, I think guitar players who started as drummers have this sense of rhythmic qualities to their playing, I come up with a lot of rhythmic [guitar] ideas that follow the drums really, really tightly and I think that's probably a result of me being a drummer first. So, yes, certainly, being a drummer definitely informs your picking hand in how you play for sure."

When you're coming up with guitar parts or bass parts, are you automatically hearing drums in your head?

"Yeah, for the most part, I think it's just kind of all happening at once. Usually, guitar is where an idea starts for me. But the drums follow quickly behind, it always informs how the rest of the things play out. Drums are, to me, the most important part. It's the backbone of everything, at least in what I do."

What did playing bass in Van Halen teach you about the way that guitars, bass and drums interact as a rhythm section?

"I think the most important thing it taught me was locking in with the drums and sort of creating this engine room for the rest of the song, if you will. Because it's kind of what keeps everything going. 

"Being able to play and lock in with Al was one of my favourite things about doing all of that. I mean, there were so many times where Dad would make a mistake, but he wouldn't even realise it because Al and I'd already fixed what he messed up! It was really fun sort of being that safety net for Dad to fly over. I miss it a lot."

How rigid are you with the other guys in Mammoth when it comes to replicating the parts live?

“Oh, well, I'm, I'm in no way a super rigid guy, I think the biggest example is the way Garrett, our drummer is able to have himself pop through the drum parts. As long as he’s generally playing the song I'm cool with but it's like, for certain fills here and there, or just the main vibe of how he does certain things, it’s all him. I love what everyone, the entire live band brings to each of the parts.

"I like to view it as — not nearly in comparison, because they're one of my favourite bands — but like with Nine Inch Nails, how Trent does his thing in the studio, but then the live performance is very much its own thing. That's how I like to view what Mammoth is - the live performance is a sort of different entity compared to the album."

You mentioned the Taylor Hawkins tribute shows earlier, Were you expecting the reaction and response to you playing those guitar parts?

"Not at all! If anything, I was expecting more people to roll their eyes. I don't know if this is a sad thing to say, but I've never seen such a wave of positivity in reaction to me on the internet before.

"It was an honour to have even been asked. I thought it was a joke when I got a text from somebody saying Dave Grohl wanted to talk to me, and I just didn't believe it. Just being able to simultaneously have the opportunity to honour Taylor — because he was the biggest Van Halen fan — and being able to honour my pop in the same performance was a really cathartic thing for me. I wasn't sure I could do it, I almost didn't do it. But I'm happy to have done it. 

"It was a wonderful experience with wonderful musicians. I mean, being able to jam with Josh, Dave and Justin was something I will never forget. They are three wonderful people and incredible musicians. So to be able to play a small part in that was, was an honour."

Most people would agree it was way more than a small part! Justin Hawkins is also an incredible guitar player, have you watched his YouTube channel?

"Oh, yeah. I love it. I love all the stuff he does, man. I loved his awesome commentary on that video of DJ Khaled just beating up that acoustic guitar. And how Justin was able to tell that it was the same chord at the beginning of…I think it was Love Will Tear Us Apart apart by Joy Division. So funny! He’s also just like a sweetheart of a man. He was so kind. We still text every now and then he's a he's a wonderful man."

How much did you have to go back to kind learn the parts for those performances?

"Really, it was just kind of listening through the songs. It was tough for me because I don't know if I've ever really said this before, but I don't really listen to Van Halen anymore. It's a little too tough for me to listen to it. So it was really emotionally difficult, listening to those three songs over and over again, trying to remember the parts. 

"Because I really didn't know all of it. I knew all the bass and I knew the structures, but having to go through and make sure I was doing everything right was difficult. But I was proud of what I was able to achieve."

We can’t talk about you being a multi-instrumentalist without mentioning vocals. At what point did you ‘find your voice’?

"Yeah, that came surprisingly naturally. I think just from such a young age, trying to replicate Michael Anthony's insane, incredible background vocals did wonders for the development of my voice. 

"I mean, I was 14 or 15 when we started rehearsing, and I think it had a monumental effect on training my vocals and my range. So I attribute that to doing those background vocals for 12 years."

Do you think the ability to sing backing vocals is often overlooked or misunderstood?

"I just think it's, it's such an important part of music that people should utilise to the highest degree, because…I know I love harmonies. Coming from things like Enema…in the way that Tom and Mark harmonise. I've always been such a huge fan of harmonies."

With all that in mind, then, what do you see yourself as primarily?

I guess now, the easiest way to describe what I do is I'm a songwriter. Or maybe just catch-all, I'll just say I'm a musician!

Mammoth WVH: Mammoth II is out now and Mammoth WVH is touring throughout 2023. For a full list of dates, click here.

Stuart Williams

I'm a freelance member of the MusicRadar team, specialising in drum news, interviews and reviews. I formerly edited Rhythm and Total Guitar here in the UK and have been playing drums for more than 25 years (my arms are very tired). When I'm not working on the site, I can be found on my electronic kit at home, or gigging and depping in function bands and the odd original project.